Joseph, Daniel, and Esther are all Israelites who attain success outside of their native land. Their stories have seven themes in common; the fifth is:
* The hero gets a foreign name. *
Actually only Joseph gets his new name and his new rank at the same time. When he is brought up from prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams in the Torah Portion Mikeitz (see Part 3), he is still the Hebrew slave Joseph. When he leaves Pharaoh, he is the Egyptian viceroy Tzafnat Panei-ach.
Joseph explains that Pharoah’s two dreams are prophecies of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Then he gratuitously advises Pharoah to find a discerning and wise man to appoint a bureaucracy to collect a fifth of Egypt’s harvest during the next seven years and stockpile it against the coming famine.
And Pharaoh said to his servants: Could we find [another] man like this, who has the spirit of God in him? …Then Pharaoh said to Joseph: See, I have placed you over all the land of Egypt. And Pharaoh did more, and placed his signet ring from his hand on the hand of Joseph. And he dressed him in clothes of fine linen, and he put the gold collar over his neck. (Genesis 41:39-42)
Then Pharaoh gives Joseph a new name and an Egyptian wife.
And Pharaoh called the sheim of Joseph: Tzafnat Panei-ach, and he gave to him Asnat, daughter of Poti-Fera, priest of On, for a wife. And Joseph went out over the land of Egypt. (Genesis 41:45)
sheim (שֵׁם) = name; standing, reputation, renown, fame.
Joseph = English for Yoseif (יוֹסֵף) = adding, increasing.
Tzafnat Panei-ach (צָפְנַת פַּעְנֵחַ) = (Phonetic spelling of an Egyptian phrase, probably meaning “The God Speaks, He Lives”.)
The new name and new wife are further symbols of Joseph’s new rank and position, but I believe they serve a second purpose. In order for the people of Egypt to accept the Pharaoh’s appointee as their ruler, Joseph must seem less foreign, more Egyptian. Besides wearing the fine linen of the Egyptian upper class, he must go by an Egyptian name. An Egyptian wife makes him look even more assimilated, and may also increase his loyalty to Egypt.
Joseph acquires an Egyptian name the day he is appointed viceroy, at age 30. Daniel and his three friends are given Babylonian names when they are still adolescent boys, captives from the conquered city of Jerusalem. King Nebuchadnezzar orders his head eunuch, Ashpenaz, to bring him some descendants of the royalty and nobility of Judah, boys who are attractive, healthy, and educable. For three years Ashpenaz must teach these foreign boys to read and write Chadean (Babylonian), and give them rations from the king’s food and the king’s wine.
Among those from Judah there were Daniel, Chananyah, Misha-eil, and Azaryah. And the head of the eunuchs put sheimot for them; and he put for Dani-el Beilteshatzar, and for Chananyah Shadrakh, and for Misha-eil Meyshakh, and for Azaryah Aved-nego. (Daniel 1:6-7)
sheimot (שֶׁמוֹת) = names. (plural of sheim)
Daniel = English for Danyeil (דָּנִיֵּאל) = Hebrew: My Judge (Dany) is God (Eil).
Beilteshatzar (בֵּלְטְשַׁאצּר) = Babylonian: ?? Theories include three possible Babylonian phrases: Protect his Life, Beilat Protect the King, and Beil Keeps Secret Treasures. Beil is the Babylonian creator god, and Beilat is the goddess wife of Beil.
All four boys arrive in Babylon with Jewish names that include a word for the God of Israel, either Eil or Yah. But King Nebuchadnezzar hopes to use these boys as advisors, after they have learned the language and culture of Babylon. It is essential to his plan that the four boys switch their loyalty to him, instead of remaining attached to their native land and their native god.
The first step is to give them new names—monikers that contain names for Babylonian gods instead of the God of Israel. (See postscript below for the other three boys.) And the first thing the four boys do after they are renamed is to request a kosher diet! (See Part 2.)
In fact, Daniel and his friends do something Nebuchadnezzar did not expect: they remain faithful to the God of Israel, and they also become loyal servants of the king of Babylon. Daniel rises to become the viceroy of the empire. Although they answer to their Babylonian names in public, in their own hearts their real names are their Jewish names.
In the book of Esther, the two Jewish heroes have Persian names from the start. Here is how Esther’s cousin and guardian Mordecai is introduced:
A Jew was in the citadel of Shushan, and shemo was Mordecai, son of Ya-ir, son of Shimi, son of Kish, a man of [the tribe of] Benjamin, who was deported from Jerusalem with the deportees that were deported with Yekanyah, king of Judah, in the deportation of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. (Esther 2:5-6)
shemo (שְׁמוֹ) = his name.
Mordecai (מַרְדָּכַי) = English for Mordakhai = My Marduks. Marduk was a Babylonian god adopted by the Persians.
Ya-ir (יָאִיר) = He Shines.
Shimi (שִׁמְעִי) = I Listen.
Kish (קִישׁ) = (etymology unknown; also the name of the father of Saul, the first king of Israel.)
Mordecai’s father Yair, his grandfather Shimi, and his great-grandfather Kish all have Hebrew names. But Mordecai, a third-generation exile, seems to have only a Persian name. And what a name! But nobody in the story questions that a Jew carries the name of a foreign god.
And he became the foster parent of Hadassah, who was Esther, the daughter of his uncle, because she had no father or mother. (Esther 2:7)
Hadassah (הֲדַסָּה) = Hebrew: Myrtle.
Esther (אֶסְתֵּר) = English for Esteir = Persian: star.
Esther has a Hebrew name, but this is the only time it is mentioned in the whole book of Esther. The rest of the time she goes by her Persian name.
God is never mentioned in the book of Esther, and neither Mordecai nor Esther prays or does any specifically religious act. But Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman because it is not his custom as a Jew (see Part 3), and when Haman arranges for the execution of Jews, Esther tells the king she is a Jew, and saves her people.
Each of the three stories illustrates a different stage of exile. Joseph embraces Egyptian dress and an Egyptian wife, but he never fully assimilates. When he reveals his identity to his brothers, he says simply I am Joseph. He lets his father give his two sons the heritage of the children of Israel, and he requests his own burial in Canaan.
Some American Jews who use only one first name, a Hebrew name, for everything. Some feel as though Israel is their real home; they consider emigrating, and they want to be buried there. They remind me of Joseph.
Daniel also serves the country where he was brought as a captive, and he flourishes in exile. He becomes a man of Babylon, and never considers returning to Jerusalem. But he continues to keep kosher and to pray to the God of Israel every day for his whole life. And although he is given a Babylonian name, he remains Daniel in the Bible and in his heart.
Most American Jews today have a Hebrew name we use for religious ritual, and a secular name we use for everything else. My Hebrew name is Tzipporah, and I only use it in religious contexts; the rest of the time I am Melissa. Like Daniel and his friends, I am loyal to my religion, but I am attached to the land of the United States (even when its government goes crazy). I want to make a pilgrimage to Israel, but I would not emigrate there.
Esther and Mordecai apparently use Persian names from birth, and their lives revolve around the Persian court. We do not see them do anything religious. Yet they identify themselves as Jews, even at the risk of death.
Some American Jews also never use a Hebrew name, and do not bother much with religion. Yet when identity is an issue, they affirm that they are Jews.
Thus thousands of years after the stories of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther were written down, Jews are still following all three models for holding a Jewish identity in another land!
Here are the Hebrew and Babylonian names of Daniel’s fellow captives:
Chananyah (חֲנַנְיָה) = Hebrew: Gracious (Chanan) is God (Yah).
Shadrakh (שַׁדְרַךְ) = Babylonian: Command (Shuddur) of Aku. Aku is a Babylonian moon god.
Misha-eil (מִישָׁאֵל) = Hebrew: Who is (Mi) That Which (She-) is God (Eil).
Meyshakh (מֵישַׁךְ) = Babylonian: Who is That Which is Aku.
Azaryah (עַזַרְיָה) = Hebrew: Help (Azar) is God (Yah).
Aved-nego (עֲוֶד נְגוֹ) = Servant of Nego. Nego is a mispronunciation of one of two Babylonian gods: Nabu, co-ruler of Babylon with the god Marduk, or Nergal, a god of death.